Rous, (Francis) Peyton

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ROUS, (Francis) Peyton

(b. 5 October 1879 in either Texas or Baltimore, Maryland; d. 16 February 1970 in New York City), Nobel Prize–winning physician and pathologist whose groundbreaking research on the relationship of viruses to cancer was recognized in the 1960s and led to new advances in understanding and treating the disease.

Rous was one of three children and the only son of Charles Rous, a grain broker who died when Rous was eleven, and Frances Anderson Wood. Rous may have been born in Texas, where his father met and married his mother, but he grew up in Baltimore. In the 1890s he enrolled at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, but he was not an outstanding student. Early on he wanted to become a naturalist, and he published articles about flowers in a Baltimore newspaper.

After receiving his B.A. in 1900, Rous enrolled in Johns Hopkins Medical School. He received his medical degree in 1905 but during his internship found that he did not actually enjoy treating patients. He went to the University of Michigan, where he developed his interest in and taught pathology and the study of disease. After spending a year studying in Dresden, Germany, Rous accepted an appointment in 1909 at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University) in New York City. Soon afterward he began his historic investigations into the pathogenesis of cancer, ignoring advisers who told him not to commit himself to cancer research. Rous remained at the institute for the rest of his life. He married Marion Eckford de Kay on 7 January 1915; they had three children.

Throughout most of his career, Rous worked in relative anonymity. His early research into how cancer develops in the body was largely ignored by other scientists. By the 1950s, however, Rous's work was beginning to gain attention. In 1966 he received the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for his discovery that viruses cause cancer. His major breakthrough occurred in 1910, when he began an experiment to determine whether chickens could contract cancer from each other. The idea contradicted what scientists thought about cancer at that time, but Rous proceeded with the experiments.

He began by successfully transplanting naturally occurring connective tissue tumors from one chicken to another, using small numbers of tumor cells. Although this was an accomplishment in itself, it did not reveal anything about the pathogenesis of cancer—that is, how cancer develops. Rous then created cell-free extracts, or filtrates, of the tumors by processing them through a filter with minute pores that even destroyed bacteria. He then injected the submicroscopic extracts into another chicken. Surprisingly, cancer developed in the chicken, and the implication was that the origin of the cancer was viral. The virus became known as the Rous sarcoma virus. Rous went on to show that different viral agents produce specific types of tumor, such as bone, cartilage, and blood vessel tumors, when injected into otherwise healthy chickens.

For the most part, Rous's colleagues refused to accept his findings, which were published in several papers in the Journal of Experimental Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. One problem was that the findings could not be reproduced in other animals. Rous even failed at extracting similar viral agents from mouse cancers. Furthermore, molecular biology was still in its infancy, and scientists were focusing on numerous areas of research concerning the causes of cancer. In a sense, they could not connect the results of these many avenues of cancer research and related discoveries.

The refusal of the scientific community to take his discoveries seriously led Rous to give up his cancer research for two decades. However, in 1933 he returned to cancer research when his colleague at the institute and good friend Richard Shope found that a wartlike growth on rabbits could progress to cancer and that an agent similar to a virus transmitted the tumor. Excited by the discovery, Rous began to study the biology of the agent that caused the tumor, which became known as the Shope papilloma. Over the next two decades Rous discovered how tumor production speeds up in several ways when chemicals, such as tar and radiation, and tumor-inducing viruses work together. He also found that carcinogenesis, or the production of cancer, begins with an initial phase in which a cell gains malignant "potential" and then proceeds to the "promotion" stage, in which this potential turns into an actively growing cancer.

Rous's demonstration of the viral origin of tumors was one of the most important discoveries in oncology, or the study of cancer. An octogenarian by the time he shared the Nobel Prize with Charles B. Huggins in 1966, Rous nevertheless was gratified to receive one of science's highest honors for his work decades earlier. That work had resulted in the first demonstration of an oncogenic virus—that is, a virus capable of causing cancer. In his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, Rous commented, "Tumors destroy man in a unique and appalling way, as flesh of his own flesh, which has somehow been rendered proliferative, rampant, predatory, and ungovernable." He went on to point out that after seventy years of research, tumors "remain the least understood.… What can be the why for these happenings?" Over the next decades, more and more answers to this question would be found using new tools in molecular biology. The revolution in the understanding of cancer, however, rests on research based on Rous's early discovery of the Rous sarcoma virus. For example, genetic studies of the virus have found that a gene or genes in the virus help transform cells into cancer, revealing that the seeds of cancer lie within us.

Described by Renato Dulbecco, a 1975 Nobel Prize winner, as "rather small in stature with silvery hair and penetrating eyes," Rous was always meticulous in his research and continued to conduct studies until his death at ninety from abdominal cancer. He pioneered research into blood preservation and transfusion, which led to the establishment in 1917 of the world's first blood bank near the front lines in Belgium during World War I. Rous was also a noted editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. In 1962 Rous was awarded the United Nations Prize from the World Health Organization, and President Lyndon Johnson presented him with the National Medal of Science in 1966.

Two useful books containing information on Rous and his research into cancer are Isaac Berenblum, Man Against Cancer: The Story of Cancer Research (1952), and Greer Williams, Virus Hunters (1959). George W. Corner, A History of the Rockefeller Institute, 1901–1953 (1964), contains detailed information on Rous's life and work, as does Renato Dulbecco, "Francis Peyton Rous," Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Science 48 (1976): 274–307. An obituary is in the New York Times (17 Feb. 1970).

David Petechuk

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